Thursday, June 14, 2012

Life as a Witch by the Sea

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Siren and Storm Hag...
"To all our enemies, we'll see you in hell,
we're gonna walk 'em off the plank into the wishing well,
down to Davy Jones' locker where the fishes sleep,
won't be praying for you, so don't be praying for me."
-"The Plank" by Devil Makes Three

The idea of practicing your craft and the craft of the spirits down by the seashore with the wind blowing and the sea roaring is a very romantic notion, and for some hags, it is a reality.  The sea in Celtic lore was associated with the otherworld, the underworld, the realm of the dead and the home of the islands where the beloved dead may go.  In Greek mythology, the sea was a treacherous but holy place and was ruled by a temperamental god who was as likely to destroy your vessel as he was to bless your village with a bountiful harvest.  To some of the coastal people of the Northwest, the sea is a sacred place, its own world with cities living beneath- it is the home of Orca Spirit and Salmon Boy.  The ocean, in every corner of the world has a great mystical function, it is a doorway to the otherworld.  Life as we know it evolved from the great depths of the sea, this is why she is called Grandmother Ocean, Dame Mare, the primordial soup pot.  While some may shudder at the fact that we are the product of the great fruitful sea and her incredible life-making abilities, I find a great sense of solace, knowing that the sea truly is the great progenitor, just as the land is our keeper.  For a traditional green witch like myself, the sea and the land complete one another, they are both the housing of the gods, the place where the spirits come and go in this world.  


Human populations by and large preferred and still prefer to live along the coast of the land, this is because the sea has always been the primary source of available food and materials for us- one of the most fertile and reliable sources of survival for mankind.  We thrive by the ocean and our religions have often reflected the respectful relationship between man and sea.  We look to the ocean as a god or goddess because for so long, the survival of a village or town relied heavily on the bounty of the sea.  The sea was and in many ways still is our provider (though we certainly have lost the respect we once had and have damaged it to painful proportions) but it was also a source of doom and fear.  A seafaring life meant a death at sea.  Many men and women have lost their lives to the terrible unpredictability of the ocean.  But still, with all that fear, the sea still calls to us, a siren who's roar echoes through some part of our evolutionary spirit.  Like space, the sea is vast and mostly unexplored- there is life everywhere and yet some parts of the sea seem empty and cold, a desolate and lifeless place.  We know little about what exists in the aphotic places of the sea, and we can only imagine what leviathans and monsters call that impenetrable abyssal realm their home.

All the typical tools, all from the sea (either made in the ocean or having been discovered in on the shore), you'd be surprised at the usefulness of the sea when searching for tools.  The animist in me is very careful about what I take.
Experiencing the ocean as a place of power, as a sacred space is entirely experiential.  I think it must be extremely difficult to truly fall into rhythm with the ocean, to master knowledge of the weather just by reading the tide or reading the flight of the seagulls, if you live too far inland.  A witch who chooses to be as connected to the sea as she is to the land is not likely to see much of a difference between the two worlds, she may see them more as parts of the same whole, two realms entwined and the perfect space to bridge the magic of land and sea (and sky) is right there on the shore of the sea, where forest meets sand, sand meets wave and the sky seems endless and holy.  


The witch by the sea may collect her tools from the sea itself, she may grow aquatinted with the rare and beautiful spirits of the sea and share a bond with the animal inhabitants within.  She may work her knot magic with the ropes and nets she scavenges from the water, she may have no need of the divination mirror, for she has the stillness of the tide-pool to gaze into. A witch by the see may find himself whistling his hymns to the tunes of old sailors song, he may come to the beach knowing that one does not need to bring their working tools with them, for the sea provides everything you will need for a ritual in which the spirits and entities of the waters are honored and consulted.  There at the seashore, one can find all the tools you will need; carapaces for offerings to be placed in, shells to drink the traditional libations from, bones and feathers to act as fetishes and psychopomps, driftwood for the fire and plenty of seawater to anoint with (some witches say to never use salt when consulting the dead, but I speak from experience; seawater has ever been useful in my workings and dealings).  One can even prepare an entire ritual feast from the beach if one knows the laws and the ropes; we've gathered dungeness crab and small fish, seaweed and other edibles that grow on the shore and prepared meals for ourselves, the ancestors and the gods of the sea with ease. Anyone committed to the land (sea and sky) can learn these skills and the practical experience of knowing the sea and understanding it on a very basic level is invaluable for weaving strong and successful practices and rituals dedicated to working with the sea.  

At the Altar of the Sea...
The witch stands alone, her feet buried in the cool sand, her hair whipping free and tangled over her eyes. Her cheeks are rough, weathered by salt and wind. She holds a flickering lantern over her head and whistles an old song.
My driftwood wand, used only when I return to the beach from which it came.
The witch as a woman by the sea, as a storm hag who thrives on the awesome power of the forces of sea, sky and land- the three worlds, is a priestess of primal power and relentless change. I have lived by the ocean most of my life. Although the Puget Sound is not the open sea (but a very large estuary), the open sea isn't far from where I live, and the Puget Sound in some ways is even better- more accessible biodiversity, beautiful uncrowded beaches, and the plant life of the seashore is unparalleled in it's lush richness. I live for the sound of the waves, the gulls and the crows picking at carapaces and carcases. I have lived a life surrounded by sea salt and stormy weather for as long as it matters, and while I am terrified of open water, I have a unique view thanks to attending a tribal school, being a part of canoe culture and studying the sea on different kinds of vessels. This connection to the sea, the salmon, the rock and the wave has had a tremendous impact on my practice as a witch and I've drawn a great deal of inspiration from the lore and tales of the sea I was raised on. 


Like some Natives living in the Northwest Coast, I was raised on the stories of Salmon Boy and the peoples who live beneath the sea but I've been lucky in that I've been able to experience Coastal life on both a cultural and spiritual level. I have feasted on the flesh of whale and shark, I have paddled between the islands in canoe and umiak and gone to sleep to the gentle rocking of the sea. I have touched a baby grey whale (by pure accident as it sort of just appeared under our boat), and I have felt the deep and unyielding power of the sea personified in all of it's denizens.   I have my own favorite spirits of the sea; predatory moon snails (with whom I have a particular fondness for), sleek black pilot whales, fat friendly belugas, and my favorite the cuttlefish.  When I choose to work with the sea and all it embodies spiritually, mystically and physically, I think of these animals, they comfort me and carry symbols and messages with them when they pass in my dreams, where the sea seems to haunt me.   In my dreams, in my visions I have visited my ancestors on every side of my family and from every bloodline, always through the sea and land. To me, the sea is always a little more unpredictable and unnerving to work with than my preferred evergreen forest and mountain meadow- I both fear and adore the sea and so the rituals I take to the beach side are ones always centered around particularly special occasions; oracular work that requires a bit more wildness, rituals to symbolically/literally destroy ties or bonds, but mostly I go to commune with the beloved dead and those long passed.


Spirit and Watery Graves...
My hagstone and three spirits-vessels (what better vessel than the corpse itself?)
The wildness of the weather combined with the roaring power of the sea, it makes an alluring combination for ecstatic experiences with the dead, with the land, with the spirits who reside in the waves and it draws many a witch in.  I find that any ritual, any rite, for any reason can become extraordinary when done by the seashore.  For witches like me who live beside and work with the sea; as a sacred place, as a resource of materials, as a symbolic representation of the Otherworld or the land of the dead, the ocean is a place of endless possibilities and functions.  Working with the dead does not require the sea, it only requires the witch, but the sea becomes an incredibly useful place for spirit-oriented rituals.  I have had many a shamanic crossing and animistic celebration on the seashore, and always find myself more alert and able to fly from my body in trance when I have the waves to listen to, the bitter winds to taste and plenty of materials to fashion charms and offerings with.  A ritual to honor the sea after beach scavenging or sea harvesting may require the use of a hand-drum as we sing haunting wordless chorus, burying libations of cooked flesh and embers from the sacred fire in the cold sand in the path of a wave.  We will smudge with the smoke from the yellowed dune grass we light from the sacred fire, they cast their brilliance in the deep twilight as the sun sets in the West, disappearing behind the open sea.  When the flames go out we dance in the smoke, and bathe in the warmth of the driftwood fire and beat our feet into the sand; to keep warm and to wake the dead.  I anoint in seawater and smoke deeply, breathing the clouds out over the wind, signals to wake the dead.  I hold the rickety old candle lantern over my head and whisper out to the blue-- hear me, wake the dead.


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I have many shells, but only very special ones are used as true vessels, the rest are simply part of Andrew and I's naturalist collection.
Related...
Sea Magic by Sandra Kynes
Sea Witch by Wendy Joubert
Traditional Witchcraft for the Seashore by Melusine Draco
Articles
Sea Witchery: The Ebb and Flow of a Most Ancient Arte, In The Chimehours